Larry's Legal Lessons: Good Samaritan Immunity Limited to Medical Assistance

In California, a judge allowed a lawsuit when a woman pulled her friend from a car crash, which caused life-changing injuries.Legal Lesson Learned: Fortunately in most states, the courts have broadly interpreted their "Good Samaritan" statutes, thereby...


In California, a judge allowed a lawsuit when a woman pulled her friend from a car crash, which caused life-changing injuries.

Legal Lesson Learned: Fortunately in most states, the courts have broadly interpreted their "Good Samaritan" statutes, thereby encouraging people to stop and render emergency care while awaiting fire and EMS responders. Unfortunately, the California Supreme Court has gone the other way. Hopefully this decision does not lead to litigation in other states against Good Samaritans.

On Dec. 18, 2008 in Alexandra Van Horn v. Anthony Glen Watson and Lisa Torti, et al, the Supreme Court of California (4 to 3) held that a lawsuit by Ms. Van Horn -- who claims she was pulled from the car "like a rag doll" and permanently paralyzed -- may proceed to trial against her friend Lisa Torti. The majority opinion starts with the following observation: "Under well-established common law principles, a person has no duty to come to the aid of another." The majority opinion holds: "we conclude that the Legislature intended for section 1799.102 to immunize from liability for civil damages only those persons who in good faith render emergency medical care at the scene of a medical emergency."

Good Samaritan Statue
Section 1799.102 of the California Health and Safety Code (1978) provides:

"No person who in good faith, and not for compensation, renders emergency care at the scene of an emergency shall be liable for any civil damages resulting from any act or omission. The scene of an emergency shall not include emergency departments and other places where medical care is usually offered."

The trial judge in Los Angeles County Superior Court, based on the plain language of this statute, granted Lisa Torti's motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff appealed and the Court of Appeals reversed on her attorney's novel argument that the Good Samaritan statute protects only those giving medical care, and not to rescue services.

Ms. Torti then appealed to the California Supreme Court; during oral argument her counsel agreed that lifting a passenger, trapped in a vehicle, is not medical care, but argued that the Good Samaritan statute should be broadly interpreted to protect all Good Samaritans who respond in good faith. Unfortunately, the 4 to 3 majority disagreed, setting forth "Reasons To Prefer A Narrower Interpretation."

Smoking Pot, Drinking Lead To Crash
On the evening of Oct. 31, 2004, Alexandra Van Horn and Jonelle Freed were at Lisa Torti's home, smoking pot. (Author's comment: It is presumably Ms. Torti's Homeowner's Insurance policy that is providing the "deep pocket" that plaintiff is seeking.) The three women were later joined by two male friends, Anthony Glen Watson and Dion Ofoegbu. At about 10 p.m., they drove over to a local bar. They all drank until about 1:30 a.m.

On their way home, Anthony Watson drove one car, with Van Horn in front passenger seat and Ms. Freed in the rear. Dion Ofoegbu was following in his car, with Torti in front passenger seat. In Chatsworth, CA, Mr. Watson lost control of his car, and crashed into a light pole at about 45 mph. The air bag deployed, and the light pole was knocked over.

Dion Ofoegbu pulled to the side of the road, and he and Lisa Torti jumped out to help their friends. Anthony Watson was able to get out on his own. Dion Ofoegbu helped Jonelle Freed get out of the back seat. Lisa Tori ran up to the front passenger seat and found Alexandra Van Horn unable to move.

The Court referred to Ms. Torti's pre-trial deposition:

"Torti testified at deposition that she saw smoke and liquid coming from Watson's vehicle, and she removed plaintiff from the vehicle because she feared the vehicle would catch fire and 'blow up'. Torti also testified that she removed plaintiff from the vehicle by placing one arm under plaintiff's legs and the other behind plaintiff's back to lift her out."

The Court noted, however, that "Others testified, on the other hand, that there was no smoke or any indications that the vehicle might explode and that Torti put Van Horn down immediately next to the car."

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